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The Courage to Serve

I never cease to be amazed at how many decisions a good chief of staff makes for a U.S. senator without consultation. Given the hundreds of small and large requests a senator receives daily, this is an essential function. It is also the epitome of judgment in serving a leader: knowing when you can speak for the leader and when you had better consult her. It takes courage to serve as a close aide to a senior leader. If you bother leaders with too many matters, you will squander their energy; if you fail to bring things that they need to know to their attention, you may blindside them, causing embarrassment or calamity.

In many organizational cultures, when things go wrong someone has to pay, to be offered up as a sacrifice, and it may be you. In the British and other governments, it is customary for a minister to resign if there has been a scandal that could tar the prime minister. Like chess, the bishops and rooks are offered to save the king.

At the same time, you may never get all of the credit for the hard work you do. Some of it is done in the leader’s name and it is she who presents the ideas to the board or the press. Yet if the leader falls from favor, as a close aide you may go down with her.

Some people prefer a safe backwater in the organization, and you can hardly blame them. Those closest to a leader often live with a high level of stress. One senator, who retained a consulting group I directed, has very high standards and equally volatile emotions. A minivan driver, who had been hired for the day to take the senator and some of his staff to a string of speaking engagements, listened as the senator repeatedly upbraided his staff about various details. “I get it!” the driver said to one of the staff who stayed behind during one speech. “You put up with this because they pay you a million dollars a year!” It was the only way he could imagine anyone would voluntarily put up with that kind of stress.

There is art to serving a dynamic leader. Done well, with superior skill, both our stress level and the leader’s can be kept down and creative energy can be maximized. Brilliant support contributes as much to an organization’s ability to fulfill its purpose as does brilliant leadership. Too often, I’ve seen leaders grow increasingly overworked, frustrated, and ill-tempered. They haven’t known how to get the support they need. Whether the leader asks for it or not, followers need to give the leader the support she needs and help her if she doesn’t know how to accept it.

Serving a leader is a complex task. It demands a high degree of organizational know-how. It requires helping the leader manage time and information. It calls for vigorously projecting the leader’s values and message. It asks for great judgment, even wisdom. And it can necessitate being very cool under fire.

In the years that I have conducted courageous follower workshops, I have learned that, too often, group members feel powerless to influence leaders and are too quick to dismiss leaders with whom they have become disenchanted. Sometimes, the first step to improving these relationships lies not in challenging the leader’s behavior or policies, but in showing care and concern for the leader. Find ways to meet the leader’s expectations and reduce her stress levels. When trust and goodwill are strengthened in this way, opportunities will present themselves in due course for addressing sensitive issues.